There was little doubt that N.C. State was going struggle in the win-loss column this season. The Wolfpack lost a majority of their starters from a team that posted a 5-7 record in 2007, as well as enduring a significant amount of attrition in the 2006 recruiting class. But what most observers were paying close attention to was whether or not this team would evolve into what Tom O'Brien demanded – a fundamentally sound, gritty football squad. For O'Brien, that mission has been accomplished.
The Wolfpack has overcome various injuries to remain in bowl contention with a 4-6 (2-4 ACC) record, and are currently on a two-game winning streak over Duke and Wake Forest. A tough schedule has forced this young team to develop quickly, as N.C. State joins North Carolina, Virginia, Duke and Wake Forest in the top-10 of USA Today's strength of schedule ranking.
"It's always fun to have games like this and to go over and play in games, because it's so important to the community and to the school. Certainly, that's all the players hear about this week, whether it be in class or in town, so that adds a little special significance to it." – O'Brien on the rivalry
"I think that's going to bring the total to 70 games that we've lost to starters this year, which probably nobody in the history of college football has had to go through this." O'Brien on the loss of defensive end Shea McKeen
"At the end of the season, they're all insignificant; it's just the number [of wins]. During the course of the season, certainly there's games -- home games take on more importance than road games sometimes, conference games take on more importance than other games. Marquee games against Notre Dame take on a certain amount. Truly, it's the game that you're playing that week, that's the only one that really matters. Last week, how you played and what you do three weeks from now has got totally nothing to do with the season." – UNC head coach Butch Davis
Nearly 10 months ago, N.C. State fans were crowning highly-touted signee Mike Glennon as the second coming of Philip Rivers. But as it stands now, the freshman signal caller will have to wait his turn as red-shirt freshman Russell Wilson earned the starting quarterback position for the Wolfpack in training camp, and the Richmond, Va. product has not looked back.
Wilson delivered an upset 21-17 victory over Wake Forest on Saturday, completing 16 of his 33 passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns, while also leading the team in rushing with 14 carries for 69 yards and a score. He extended his streak of consecutive attempts without an interception to 175, and stands just four shy of tying Jamie Barnette's record.
In a league short on elite-level quarterbacks, Wilson (1270 passing yards, 12 TD, 1 INT) has methodically worked his way up the food chain, ranking second in the conference in passing efficiency with a 127.0 rating. Working out of a unique offense that includes read-option elements, O'Brien praised both Wilson and offensive coordinator Dana Bible on the success under center.
"I think you got to give a lot of credit to Dana Bible and what he's done," O'Brien said. "The whole thing about coaching quarterbacks is you want to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses… Each week [Wilson] learns something new. There's something that he hasn't seen or experienced, but the good thing about him is that really he doesn't make the same mistake again. That's one of the best traits that he has."
Wilson, who doubles as a standout baseball player, will face arguably his toughest task of the season on Saturday as he encounters a North Carolina defense that ranks second in the ACC and eighth in the country in turnover margin at +1.20. The Tar Heels' 18 interceptions are tied for second-most nationally, thanks to picks in eight of their 10 games this season. Those turnovers have accounted for 83 points for North Carolina.
Matchups to Watch
UNC's Quarterbacks vs. NCSU's Secondary
Neither T.J. Yates nor Cameron Sexton have played in enough games this season to qualify for the ACC's individual pass efficiency standings, but the duo has combined to give the Tar Heels the top team pass efficiency rating with a 136.8 mark, combining for 1881 yards, 15 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Now that Yates is finally healthy, the possibility for a quarterback controversy is beginning to emerge in Chapel Hill.
"We're going to take a look at and see who gives us the best chance this week," Davis told reporters on Monday. "We're going to take this week and watch them both practice and put them in situations and see how the week unfolds before we decide who might be the quarterback."
While there are a number of variables that will go into the decision, arguably the most important one is which quarterback can take advantage of a Wolfpack secondary that ranks dead-last in the conference in passing defense (249.8 ypg) and passing efficiency defense (132.8 rating). N.C. State will have trouble covering ACC Player of the Year candidate Hakeem Nicks (53 catches for 911 yards and 8 TD).
With stud linebacker Nate Irving and defensive tackle Alan Michael-Cash back in the lineup for the Wolfpack, Mike Archer's defense has shown improvement in recent weeks, highlighted by O'Brien's comment on Monday that his safeties didn't miss a tackle against Wake Forest after missing five a game heading into last weekend.
UNC's Kick Cover Teams vs. NCSU's Returners
Having track speed is one thing, but transferring that ability onto the football field is quite another. N.C. State freshman T.J. Graham – a N.C. 4-A state champion in the 100 and 200 meters – has made the adjustment quite well, ranking 3rd in the ACC and 37th nationally in kickoff returns (25.1 ypr, 1 TD). His 852 total kickoff yards already serve as a school record, thanks to leading the conference in attempts, and he is averaging 8.8 yards on 12 punt returns this season.
Graham has played a significant role in several games this season, returning a kickoff 100 yards against Boston College to keep the Wolfpack close to the Eagles until the final drive. The Raleigh, N.C. native has also assumed the role as a diversion at times, handing off the opening kickoff against Duke to J.C. Neal and watching him scamper 93 yards for an early seven-point lead.
North Carolina's kickoff coverage has been solid all season long, ranking fourth nationally by giving up just 17.56 yards per return, a drastic improvement from a year ago when the unit was loaded with freshmen.
"I think the biggest area where we've made some pretty good improvement on kickoff coverage was being able to read the other teams' blocking schemes," Davis said last week. "A lot of times when kids come into your program, especially the freshmen and red-shirt freshmen, they're just used to setting their hair on fire and running down the field and trying to chase the ball, and not realizing that the execution on kickoff returns is almost identical to an awful lot of offensive plays."
The Tar Heels rank 74th nationally in punt return yardage defense (9.65 yards per return), but those statistics have improved dramatically over the past six outings. During that stretch, UNC is allowing just 3.5 yards per return (53 yards on 15 returns) with a long of 13 yards. The Tar Heels also have four blocked punts on the season.
* The Tar Heels lead the overall series with NC State, 63-28-6 and have won 11 of the last 15.
* The Wolfpack won last season's contest in Raleigh, 31-27. After falling behind 17-0, North Carolina rallied before turning the ball over on downs at the NCSU 7-yard line with 6.9 seconds remaining.